A Desperate Fortune

Page 43

The man who was to be her brother came by coach next afternoon.

He was, to her surprise and pleasure, rather like her brother in appearance—of the same age and the same build and of middle height like Nicolas, and with an oval face as frank and friendly. He wore a short white-powdered wig that made a contrast to his darker eyebrows, and his eyes were hazel green and large, inclined to narrow slightly when he smiled. He smiled often.

He spoke educated French, a scholar’s French, and had the manners of a gentleman.

“My dear Marie,” he greeted her as smoothly as an actor, with a warm embrace as genuine as if he had in truth been her own brother. “It is good to see you well.”

He gallantly removed his cloak and passed it to the waiting maid together with his gloves, and climbed the stair with Mary to their suite of rooms where he proceeded to warm every corner of that space with personality. He charmed the servants, one and all, made Mary laugh, and even coaxed a proper smile from Madame Roy. Frisque, being not as fond of male companionship, was harder to impress, but by the week’s end even he was coming round a little.

Mary played her part as well as she was able. She knew nothing of this man but that his name was Jacques, or so she had been told, and she could hardly ask him questions in this house where they were never on their own together, but she nonetheless reached some conclusions of her own.

She did not think that he was French. He spoke without a hint of accent, but his choice of words was often not in keeping with the words she would have chosen, and at breakfast on the third day he stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence with a sudden look of vague surprise, as though he either had forgotten what he was about to say, or did not know the phrase for it. She finished off the thought for him and teased him for becoming so distracted, hoping humor would keep any of the servants from perceiving his small stumble, and he smiled at her in gratitude, but from that moment on she was convinced he was not French.

And while he clearly did not labor with his hands, he had the faintest callous on the middle finger of his right hand as a man acquired from daily taking up a pen or pencil.

She herself was gaining something similar from writing in her journal every evening, after supper but before Madame Roy came to bed. It was a peaceful moment she looked forward to, alone with pen and candle and the blank page of her journal as she worked the simple cipher Mistress Jamieson had made for her, to write her thoughts in private.

I am inclined to think, she wrote, that Jacques may be a poet or a satirist, and persecuted by the English for his bold attacks on them. In truth he has a cutting wit and keeps us all amused.

The candle dipped and danced, caught in a stray draught that had seeped with stealth around the window frame, for outside it was growing colder from the darkness and the bitter wind that chased between the houses, down the narrow street. The street, she knew now, had a name: the rue du Coeur Volant. The street of the flying heart. Quite a romantic name for such a mean and deplorable thoroughfare; and yet at night all its ugliness faded, subdued by the light of the lanterns that caught the bright clothes of the revelers passing beneath on their way to and from the great Fair Saint-Germain in the next street but one.

Mary rose now and crossed to the window to watch them a moment and tried not to yearn quite so strongly to follow them, telling herself there would be other years, other fairs, other chances. She leaned on the glass so she would not be forced to see her own reflection in place of the wider world, much like the linnet confined to its cage might press one eye close up to the bars and so fool itself.

Frisque whined at her feet as though sensing her mood and she bent low and lifted him up so that he could see, too. Through the glass and above the hard wind she could hear mingled shouting and music.

“It’s all right,” she told the dog, holding him tightly. “It’s still an adventure.”

A tale for her memoirs.

A small speck of light caught the edge of her gaze from the dark of the tall house across the street. Turning her head just a fraction, she watched till she saw it again, to be sure: the faint glow of a pipe held by someone who stood at the opposite window, now fading, now burning, in time with his breathing.

* * *

“I’m certain,” said Jacques the next morning, “there’s nothing at all to be causing concern.”

She had broken her strict rule of keeping in character, speaking of nothing but trifles. She’d risen yet earlier than was her custom and waited for Jacques in the breakfast room so she could ask him to speak with her privately. No easy thing in this house, but they’d managed to find a small passage between rooms with no one about and the servants well busy below.

“He was at the window on the day before you came as well,” Mary went on. “I did think nothing of it then, for people often take an interest in new neighbors, but I’ve thought about it since, and I do fear he may be watching us.”

“Watching you, possibly. And who could blame him?” Jacques smiled in his charming way. “No, I have faith in our friends. I have lasted some months without being discovered, I’ve truly acquired an instinct for possible danger. And here, I sense none.”

But she still felt uneasy.

He told her, “I’ll prove it. I’ll take you to Mass.”

Mary shook her head forcefully. “No, we are not meant to leave the house.”

“My orders were not to leave it unless it could not be avoided,” he answered her smoothly. “And I’d be a very poor brother indeed if I put you in peril of losing your soul. You are Catholic, I take it?”

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